Swordfishing, Westport Massachusetts
This page highlights information, photographs and video relating to Westport’s Swordfish Boat Captains and Fish Spotter Pilots
Enjoy stories and memories as recounted by Westport’s swordfish boat captains and the pilots of the planes that spotted swordfish: Everett Mills, Grant Moore, Jimmy King, Paul Brayton, Richie Earle, and Howie Gifford.
“The swordfish are in when the dandelions bloom” is an age-old Westport saying recalled by former swordfish boat captain Russ Hart. In the 1950s, swordfish were plentiful in supply, providing extra revenue for lobster boats which often came across swordfish just a few miles offshore. Weighing-in of the swordfish was a daily event that always attracted quite a crowd at the Point. By the 1970s, planes were used to spot the swordfish, requiring pilots flying on average 200 miles in a single engine plane.
Spear Swordfishing, Westport Matters No. 266, 10-31-2003
Spearing is reserved for mature Fish as opposed to long line fishing which is indiscriminate of size. Decimating juveniles and yielding poorer quality meats due to the fish having hung on the line sometimes for long periods after they have died. Long lines are also more prone to Shark damage. This video originates from a fledgling studio at Westport High School. So the quality is somewhat wanting. However its the only copy available. Westport Matters videos are unfiltered and were recorded as targets of opportunity without elaborate staging, commercial equipment and trained crews.
Westport History Study Group January 13, 2005 Convened by Norma Judson DVD 508
Participants. Glenda Broadbent, Paul Tamburello, Betty Slade, Carolyn Cody, Cukie Macomber, Albert “Ab” Palmer, Shirley Palmer, Norma Judson, Howie Gifford, Bob Brayton, Russ Hart, Barney Gifford, Nancy Burkholder, Alice Macomber. Topics. Discussion led by Ab Palmer mainly on swordfishing with comments by many, Tripp’s Wharf, Paul Cuffe’s farm, wharfs with cut granite stones, coal barges
January 13, 2005. Produced by Betty Slade, From DVD 508
Westport History Study Group September 7, 2006 – Convened by Norma Judson DVD536
Participants. Cukie Macomber, Carolyn Cody, Martha guy, Burney Gifford, Howie Gifford, Marie Hadfield, Paul Tamburello, Glenda Broadbent, Carol Coutinho, Beverly Morrison Glennon, Norma Judson, Betty Slade.
Topics: Tom Patenaude talked about conditions of buildings, stores, restaurants, pavilions, dance halls, bowling alleys and houses on East and West Beach before the 39 Hurricane and the 54 Hurricane and after; soldiers and military; Gooseberry Causeway, Skiffs, swordfishing, people at the Point (Bill Head, Red Menard, Bud Hadfield, Al Lees, Ed Messier, Roger Hart; yacht club, state taking land, destruction,band concerts, beautiful yards, St Rosa Linda church, Mercy Baker Road, life saving station, dump on John Reed, VJ day, NY Yacht club, Bill Whipple (some history), deep sea scalloping, change from harpooning to long lining, 4th July fireworks, Johnny Straker prank, opening the bridge, “watch the boats come in” Much discussion by others. Norma Judson talked about the 9 recognized town landings in Westport. All are shown in 1986 Town Reports and now in library History Room. Discussion about these landings.
September 7, 2006
Produced by Betty Slade
From DVD 536
Westport History Study Group At the Paquachuk Inn
Under auspices of Norma Judson and Tony Connors
At the Paquachuk Inn From DVD 727
Topics and Speakers:Howie Gifford on his early days in Westport
Cukie Macomber on Swordfishing in Westport
Tony Connors on Charlotte White
December 12, 2012 Produced by Steve Connors
In 1981, intrepid Westport photographer David Allen, created a visual record of a swordfishing expedition. These vibrant and sometimes bloody photographs document the Unicorn, a swordfishing boat owned by Greg and Jonathan Mayhew of Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard.
Our thanks to Nathaniel Allen for allowing us to display these photographs. And thanks to Richard Earle and Richard Dey for providing additional information about swordfishing activities out of Westport.
By the late 1950s swordfishing had evolved into a more serious commercial activity. Boats such as the Rodman Swift (owned by Arthur Denault), and Isabelle J II (owned by Robert Hebden) were assisted by airplanes to spot the swordfish.
The length of fishing trips extended into many days as ice improved storage conditions. The method of capture also changed from harpooning to an indiscriminate method of longlining. By the mid-1960s, fears about mercury in large fish slowed the demand for swordfish.
However, by the 1980s, the industry had rallied, becoming a regional activity. Here in Westport commercial swordfishing boats included:
“Quest” owned by Everett Mills and Curtis Davol.
“Side Show” owned by Paul Brayton and Richard Earle.
“Broadbill” owned by Grant Moore and Bud Smith.
The excitement and thrill of swordfishing is unique to the sport. In many ways, it compares closely to whaling:
A lookout stands high in the pulpit searching for a tell-tale blow of a swordfish.
Even the gear, such as the harpoon, is reminiscent of whaling.
Harpooning required enormous confidence and skill. Yet, like a field goal kicker, a harpooner was only as good as the last goal.
Swordfish harpooners have been described as “the last of a breed” — just about the last people on earth who engage big game with a hand-thrust spear.
On a good day, a harpooner caught 36 to 50 fish.
Processing the fish
The stomach is removed and a sliming knife used to clean the belly. Head, sword and fins are cut off. Salt is used to clean and preserve the fish.
Swordfish are known to have run their swords through the planking of small boats when hurt or threatened. This tendency led dories to be lined with steel to protect the occupant of the boat from a painful and potentially life threatening attack.
Contrary to popular belief, the sword is not used as a spear but instead may be used to slash and injure prey, making for an easier catch. The swordfish relies on its great speed and agility in the water to catch its prey. It is undoubtedly among the fastest fish.
Swordfish are vigorous, powerful fighters. When hooked or harpooned, they have been known to dive so quickly, they have impaled their swords into the ocean bottom up to their eyes.
Swords were used for scrimshaw, turning a beautiful ivory color when towed in sea water behind the boat.
Swordfish boat superstitions
Swordfish boats ensured good luck and fair weather by adopting a number of superstitions:
Turning hatch covers upside down.
Kissing the first fish.
The crew were forbidden to utter the word “pig”.
Whistling was forbidden.
Swordfish were harvested by a variety of methods at small scale (notably harpoon fishing) until the global expansion of longline fishing.
The longlining technique involves using thousands of baited hooks attached to one monofilament line that extends for miles. The line would be set at night and tended in the morning.
Longlining may be the most effective way to catch swordfish, but it is also the least environmentally friendly, resulting in unintended catches of a lot of other animals, including sea turtles, marine mammals and young swordfish.
Weighing in the swordfish
This iconic photograph captures the excitement of the crowd gathered on Lees Wharf to witness the weighing-in of the swordfish. Albert Lees Sr. bends over the scales, watched by a young Carl Lees (on his left), Art Denault (to his right), Norma Judson, (wearing a scarf), and Liz Blossom Rulon (wearing overalls). Also amongst the crowd is Richie Earle as a young boy with his parents.
In the background, you can see the “By Cracky”, owned by Arthur Denault, a well-known Westport sword-fisherman. The “Last Fling” owned by Ted and Bob Hebden is moored close by.
In the 1950s swordfish were plentiful in supply, providing extra revenue for lobster boats which often came across swordfish just a few miles offshore.
Weighing-in of the swordfish was a daily event that always attracted quite a crowd at the Point.
Look carefully at the crowd. Can you help us identify any other individuals in this photograph?
WHS Collection. Photographer Ambrose Keeley.